Last week Friday, a West Village photo studio was transformed into a hub of empowerment for #GalinskyLIT, an effort to help fund libraries and education initiatives in NYC jails and prisons. But if the word “fundraiser” inspires images of gold-plated table spreads and celebrities in sparkly gowns posing in front of hot lights, well, you’ve got the wrong thing in mind. Instead of exclusiveness, this event embraced inclusiveness– and rather than simply serving and coordinating donations and programs for incarcerated teenagers from a distance, the organizers really listened to the underserved and too-often maligned group that it represents.
The fundraiser was powered by Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, aka LIT (apparently library service non-profits really know how to pick their acronyms) and Robert Galinsky, a multifaceted entrepreneur and founder of Galinsky Coaching, a career coaching firm that offers corporate media training and public speaking courses. Through his participation in LIT, Galinsky– who was the charismatic center of this event– has worked with incarcerated youth at Rikers Island and other prisons, helping young people learn better communication skills and how to express themselves through creative outlets like poetry and theatre.
The numbers are bleak, but more than 10 percent of detainees at Rikers Island, a notoriously violent facility, are under the age of 21. In 2014, the de Blasio administration ordered a ban on the detention facility’s archaic practice of placing teens in solitary confinement, (the following year that ban was extended to include anyone under 21). The reform came only after the Justice Department released the damning conclusions from their investigation of the detention facility, which revealed a “pattern and practice of excessive force and violence” directed at adolescents being held at Rikers.
But the less visible injustices experienced by adolescents detained at Rikers and elsewhere are somewhat underlying. Each year, the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice intakes 7,000 youths between ages 8 and 16, many of whom struggle with literacy.
According to Galinsky, his approach to teaching incarcerated teens isn’t didactic. “I don’t walk in talking about literacy necessarily,” he said. “My first approach is, I come in and say, ‘Nobody in this room is wrong.’” Galinsky’s of the mindset that, “Everybody makes mistakes. Some of the best discoveries have come out of mistakes.”
You wouldn’t necessarily expect Galinsky to be steeped in this kind of knowledge, as the rest of his endeavors tend toward the eccentric. Aside from work with LIT, he’s responsible for many other colorful ventures including a book of “coffee moments” with the rather caffeinated title, Coffee Crazy: 140 AHA! Coffee Moments from the Conference Room, to the Cafe, to the Kitchen, and a variety of reality television training programs that promise to “prepare you for the challenges and surprises that all Reality TV participants face.” According to his website, Galinsky’s even at work “developing the musical Coffee The Musical.” But the last three years have presented an opportunity to work on a project of much greater depth.
But Galinsky isn’t just a do-gooder seeking to help some troubled kids– instead, he demonstrates a real awareness of the complexities of crime and punishment, as well as the problems that are endemic in our criminal justice system, especially our juvenile one—many of these teens end up in prison because New York uniquely, bizarrely prosecutes 16 and 17-year-olds as adults. He agrees that many aren’t aware of the insidious nature of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, but notes that social media is helping to educate some. He mentions Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, acknowledging that the vast majority of incarcerated teens are Latino and African-American.
“To me, it’s proof of the systematic persecution of people of color in this country. Can’t hide it,” he adds. “You can blame people for their decision-making, and people should be responsible for their decision-making, but when you put people in the most dire situation[s] and make their environment and community difficult to survive in, and you flood them with drugs, then you’re doing an awesome job at keeping this particular demographic down.”
At the fundraising event last week, there were old friends, collaborators, acquaintances who had found their way here through the coaching company interns, even Galinsky’s wide-eyed neighbor from his home in the East Village. He has a way of bringing people together, that’s because Galinsky’s a true character– bright-eyed and social, clad in his signature red glasses, he was the charismatic glue that held this variegated crowd together. I asked many people what brought them to the event, and the one word that was on pretty much everyone’s lips? “Galinsky.”
Even with all of his eccentric outlets and unique projects, Galinsky says that he’s always harbored a passion for helping and teaching young people. Aside from speaking engagements and coaching, he’s spent his time teaching special education and conflict resolution, as well as directing theatre and serving as the Executive Coach for TEDxTeen events (an independent series of TED talks conducted by young people).
He knows the system through and through, and he can pinpoint some of the major issues that are probably only at the forefront of a few minds– policy nerds and prison reform activists. Galinsky feels that the 8th Amendment’s prohibition of excessive bail is consistently being violated, and disproportionately impacts people of color in the process.
“If a kid gets accused of stealing a backpack, he gets sent to Rikers Island on $5,000 bail,” he explained. “If you’re living in inner-city New York City you’re already disadvantaged, you don’t have that [money]. Plus you’re being held, so you [only] have that one phone call.” The system’s so wacky that sometimes it swings in the other direction, as seen in the recent case of an Algerian man from Queens who was held at Rikers for five months, meanwhile unbeknownst to him, his bail was only two dollars.
It’s no coincidence that Rikers Island is having something of a moment. The facility was notorious for abuse and violence long before the Justice Department’s investigation and the de Blasio administration’s reform efforts. Recently, there have been multiple protests and calls for the facility to be closed altogether. Rikers’ bad reputation has even made it to social media– the jail has earned a surreal two-star rating on Yelp. The terrible environs of Rikers have been so normalized that some bloggers (and prison COs for that matter) have developed a fascination with the Pokemon that can be found there, rather than expressing a sense of disgust.
A few weeks ago, the city announced that youths at Rikers Island would be moved to a separate facility in the Bronx due to “harsh” conditions, which could present a major change in how juvenile suspects awaiting trial and prisoners are treated. According to officials, the transition will take four years to complete at a cost of $300 million. But that prediction might be optimistic judging by the fits and starts that have followed the supposed ban on solitary confinement for 18- to 21-year-olds– namely, that Rikers has failed to change their policy completely and has made repeated extensions to the deadline.
Several of the guests in attendance at Friday’s fundraiser have been working diligently to create a better environment at Rikers, including poet and educator Liza Jessie Peterson, who received an award of Galinsky’s creation called the “Not a Bystander” award for her work. Peterson has taught at Rikers for a whopping 18 years.
She performed a long and passionate spoken-word piece, which she began by reading a chilling, seemingly-endless list of names, all belonging to people of color who have been killed at the hands of police officers and others over the past several years. “We are in a state of emergency!” she declared.
Later, two young women were called onstage, both of whom were identified as having once been incarcerated at Rikers. One of the women, in fact, had just returned home. They spoke briefly about how educators like Peterson and Galinsky helped empower them during their time away, remarking how when you’re incarcerated you’re not encouraged to express yourself and the people who previously were there for you cannot or will not be. This sort of moment could be cheesy and almost exploitative, but these women weren’t just highlighted as living testimonials for the program, they were there in the crowd the whole time, along with all the other guests.
Prior to the event, Galinsky told me pursued teaching in prisons after hearing a commencement speech delivered by a friend of his, Jamal Joseph, he was speaking at a boy’s prison. Joseph was a member of the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party, and 1969 he was charged as a member of the “Panther 21,” and subsequently acquitted in one of the most expensive trials in New York State history, and has additionally spent nine assorted years in state and federal prisons as a result of Panther and BLA-related crimes. Now, he’s a writer, activist, and educator with a published memoir; he’s earned an Oscar nomination and currently holds a position at Columbia University.
At the fundraiser, Joseph recounted his first moments in the Black Panther office when he was 15.
“This brother reached into the bottom drawer, my heart was pounding,” he recounts. “And he handed me a stack of books, Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, The Wretched of the Earth by [Franz] Fanon.”
The mixed crowd was earnestly refreshing. Many fundraisers cater to the ultrarich (and ultra white), creating a strange dissonance between the people the organization is trying to serve and the people throwing money around in order to get some fleeting heartwarming feeling of “helping.” Leonard Bernstein’s notorious 1970 fundraiser for the Black Panthers, held on Park Avenue, is just one that comes to mind– as recounted in Tom Wolfe’s 25,000-word New York magazine feature, in which he coined the term “Radical Chic.”
Yes, some of the folks there were surely in an upper-income bracket, but tickets to the event were $50, not entirely expensive in the context of most fundraisers. For some perspective, Leo DiCaprio is set to host a $33,400-per-ticket fundraiser for Hillary Clinton at his home later this month.
Nevertheless the event was held inside a photo studio owned by the former CEO of VH1, and nestled among high-end boutiques in the West Village. But the cozy kitchen space and two floors lent a family-party feeling to the event, as if we were all in attendance at a relative’s milestone birthday celebration (complete with veggie trays and free-flowing rosé, of course) rather than anything so frou-frou as Leo’s gilded Hillary event will no doubt prove to be.
Downstairs, there was a mixed bag of performers lounging, alongside people who were taking a break from all the socializing, and finely-dressed folks grooving to the beats spun by Public Enemy’s Keith Shocklee. There was also a yo-yo dance performance by a clownish performer close to the night’s end that prompted me to wonder if I had momentarily transcended reality. I had to ask: “Who’s this clown?”
And, because I didn’t hear any “It’s lit!” jokes, despite obvious potential, I went ahead and made one myself. Out of common courtesy, of course. Because it was lit, not only by the Peroni beers but by a genuine desire to be a part of something.
GalinskyLIT’s online auction continues through the end of the day.